Combating fentanyl overdose during National Recovery Month

USC offers resources to educate students on drug safety and awareness.

As the nation celebrates the growth of those in treatment and rehab during National Recovery Month, the promotion of education and awareness surrounding the use and abuse of drugs continues to spread as well.

As California’s COVID-19 cases drop and the long-awaited return of social events and parties to campus life begins, the Los Angeles community has begun to see a spike in positive fentanyl cases.

According to Trojan Awareness Combating Overdose (TACO) Inc., a 501(c)3 non-profit organization that seeks to educate about drug use, more than a dozen positive fentanyl tests have been reported at USC and UCLA in the past two weeks. The organization said they believe that this may be due to fentanyl-contaminated cocaine circulating in the L.A. area right now.

“Last gameday, we heard of about five overdoses, thankfully none were fatal,” said Issa Gianatiempo, TACO’s director of outreach.

USC currently does not have a central system to communicate cases of fatal or nonfatal overdoses to students, said Gianatiempo, who added that this information is instead being spread via word of mouth.

Assistant Chief David Carlisle of USC’s Department of Public Safety (DPS) said DPS does not have any confirmed cases of fentanyl overdoses this semester.

“This does not mean that there haven’t been any,” said Carlisle in an email to Annenberg Media. “It means that DPS has not received any confirmation that a student transported to the hospital for intoxication has been due to fentanyl or fentanyl-laced cocaine.”

USC did not respond to a request for comment at the time of publishing and has not released any statistics about overdoses or positive fentanyl tests this year.

Daryl Davies, USC toxicologist and director of the MS program in management of Drug Development, told Annenberg Media it isn’t surprising that there may be a rise in cases of fentanyl-laced drugs.

“It’s hard to imagine that it’s not getting worse,” Davies said. “That’s the national trend, it’s creeping into all of the universities. Especially because COVID has exacerbated, because of social isolation and other issues, more substance abuse and experimenting.”

USC has a recent history of student drug-related accidents. In 2019, the university recorded four USC student deaths in what turned out to be drug-related accidents. In the wake of a possible spike in positive fentanyl cases on campus, it is important that students are educated, aware and safe when it comes to drug use.

Here are a few of the best resources on campus that are available to all students promoting safety and health in regards to drug use:

What is fentanyl and why do I need to test my drugs for it?

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIH), fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid that is similar to morphine but is 50 to 100 times more potent. In recent years, there has been an increase in drugs mixed with fentanyl due to the small quantity required to produce a stronger high for the user. This creates an exceptional risk as people consuming certain drugs may not realize they contain fentanyl, making overdose more likely.

Davies warned fentanyl has a powerful narcotic effect and comes at a very low cost to drug producers who may lace drugs with fentanyl to create the illusion of a more powerful and potent drug.

How can I find out if my drugs are contaminated with fentanyl?

Fentanyl test strips are an effective way of identifying the presence of fentanyl in unregulated drugs, according to Davies and TACO. They can be used to test a variety of types of injectables, powders and pills.

“You have to want to take the time and energy [to test your drugs],” said Davies. He emphasized the importance of testing drugs, even in a party environment, as it may be the difference between a fatal overdose.

How can I get fentanyl test strips?

TACO recommends ordering fentanyl test strips through Duffl, a rapid student-run convenience delivery service, who TACO partnered with to increase accessibility to tests. The strips have been subsidized to 1 cent and can be delivered in as fast as 10 minutes. They can also be picked up at Duffl’s storefront.

TACO also distributes test strips free of charge every Friday on USC’s Greek Row from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Fentanyl strips can be ordered online from other marketplaces, but often run a price of around $2.50 a strip and may take 3-5 days to arrive.

“Now [with accessibility], there’s not much of a cost involved and [students] can get them within 10 minutes, so there’s really no reason for students to not be testing their drugs for something as lethal as fentanyl,” said Madeline Hilliard, founder and CEO of TACO.

How do I use fentanyl test strips?

Mix a few crumbs of the drug into 1-2 teaspoons of water. Dip the strip (below the blue line) into the drug and water mixture.

“For the fentanyl test strips, one line is positive, two lines are negative and even if the two lines are faint it still means that it is a negative test,” Hilliard said. “But we do encourage students that if they are ever unsure of what the result is, to go and retest because the strips are inexpensive.”

TACO gives instructions for how to use the fentanyl test strips on their website.

What do I do if I get a positive result?

If you get a positive result, reconsider using the drug. If you choose to proceed, understand that drugs laced with fentanyl pose a higher risk of overdose and unpredictable, sometimes severe, reactions.

USC currently does not have a centralized location to report positive fentanyl tests. However, the university recommends activating emergency response and reporting all cases of drug overdose with DPS.

TACO is currently trialing a reporting program via QR codes on their test strips for users to report positive tests.

How to recognize an overdose and when to call 911?

Health officials recommend calling 911 in any life threatening emergency.

The most obvious signs of an opioid overdose are small or pinpoint pupils and very slow, shallow breathing or a lack of breathing. Further signs include a lack of consciousness, limp body and pale, blue or cold skin.

The CDC recommends calling 911 if an overdose is suspected. Even if a person wakes up or seems better after one or two doses of naloxone, emergency medical assistance is still necessary.

What is naloxone and when should it be given?

Naloxone is an opioid antagonist that rapidly reverses an opioid overdose. Narcan is a popular brand of naloxone that is administered as a nasal spray.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, naloxone “should be given to any person who shows signs of an opioid overdose or when an overdose is suspected.” Naloxone does not have an effect on someone who does not have opioids in their system.

“The naloxone will rapidly reverse or compete with the fentanyl for a short period of time, which will give emergency services enough time to get to the student and get them to the correct medical facilities,” Davies said.

Health officials assert that naloxone effects are temporary and medical attention is immediately necessary following signs of an overdose.

“All the nasal spray is doing is buying a little more time,” Davies said. “It will wear off quickly and fentanyl will still be circulating in the bloodstream.”

At USC, the NaloxoneSC program provides vital information and assistance to USC students in preventing overdoses or substances laced with fentanyl.

How do I use naloxone?

NaloxoneSC provides students with free virtual training about how to use naloxone.

Naloxone should be administered as soon as possible to a person suspected of experiencing an overdose.

After assisting the person and recognizing the signs of an overdose, the CDC recommends contacting emergency services first and following all manufacturer’s instructions for safe administration of naloxone. They recommend administering a second dose if the person is unresponsive after two to three minutes, noting that it may take up to five minutes for signs of an overdose to reverse. Continue monitoring the person while waiting for emergency assistance and start other aid interventions, such as CPR if needed.

Where can I get naloxone?

Narcan can be bought as a USC student, faculty, or staff at any of the school’s pharmacies without a prescription and is covered by Aetna. You do not need a physician’s prescription in order to purchase.

NaloxoneSC also provides students with a free twin pack of Narcan-brand naloxone nasal spray and drug testing strips once they complete an online training video, pass a knowledge quiz and sign an attestation form.

In 2019, Assistant Chief Carlisle of DPS announced that officers should carry an emergency package of Narcan out of an abundance of caution. He confirmed that DPS public safety officers (PSOs) are currently trained in the use of Narcan and carry it with them at all times.

What are organizations on campus doing to combat fentanyl-related overdoses?

Vice President of Recruitment for USC’s Interfraternity Council (IFC) Dylan Strode said that fraternities on Greek Row are communicating via general meetings and group chats about the increase in fentanyl-related cases.

Strode said that IFC works directly with TACO to provide members of the houses with free fentanyl test strips to use and distribute. Fraternity presidents have also been trained in and have Narcan on hand if needed.

While USC students and alumni created and run TACO, the group is not a registered student organization. They operate in this way to allow financial contributions to be tax-deductible for donors and so the organization can spread their work to other schools, like UCLA and UCSB.

Though TACO distributes fentanyl test strips on USC’s Greek Row, they emphasized that the strips are available to anyone in the USC and surrounding community. They believe that distribution on the Row is more accessible for those who want to drive and pick up strips quickly.

Students dealing with mental health issues can contact the 24/7 phone line (213) 740-9355 or can walk into USC Student Health centers for professional assistance. Students, faculty and staff members concerned about a fellow Trojan can notify Trojans Care 4 Trojans online or by calling (213) 821-4710. Faculty and staff members can reach out to the Center for Work and Family Life at (213) 821-0800.